Nowadays PDF documents are one of the most important digital communication formats. Countless PDF files are sent via e-mail and/or are made available to download from websites. However, for visually impaired people, PDFs present an obstacle. This means that they may miss out on information, because they do not have a clear overview.
Back in 2008, PDF actually became an ISO standard and is now the global reference in the field of document exchanges. The portability — and preservation of the visual formatting and layout — make PDF format perfect for long documents intended for print. PDFs can be secured against editing, too, further adding to their popularity.
PDF also offers support for accessible electronic forms, digital signatures, password security, and electronic mark-ups. This makes PDFs ideal for interactive digital processes.
However, to be compliant with document standards for government agencies and contractors, PDFs need to be made accessible. Almost any PDF file can be made to deliver high-quality reading and navigation results to tags-aware Assistive Technology users. And not making your PDF accessible limits your audience or reader to those who do not depend on screen readers.
What is Assistive Technology?
Assistive Technology such as screen readers are software programs that allow blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer or braille display. A screen reader is the interface between the computer’s operating system, its applications, and the user.
Making PDFs accessible is especially important in businesses such as:
- Government Agencies
- Banking & Finance
- Translation Agencies
- Health & Insurance
Creating an accessible PDF file means that you make sure your content is going to be available to as many users — or readers — as possible. When you make your PDFs accessible, it means adding tags as well as alt text, bookmarks and any other information that makes the files readable to users who are visually or mobility impaired.
A scanned image is still an image, with no information for screen readers unless the information is added and a PDF can support a wide array of accessibility information for all content elements. PDF was not accessible until 2001, because each page was basically a flat image. Since then, PDF can be fully accessible.
Making PDFs Accessible
Your accessible PDF should contain real text rather than an image of text. A tagged document contains an underlying ‘tag tree’ which actually represents the structure of your document.
There are a wide range of products that can create PDF files, but very few of them produce tagged PDF files. PDF tags provide a hidden (and structured) textual representation of your PDF content. This content can then be presented accurately to screen readers and the tags will have no visible effect on your PDF file.
Tagging can help readers by indicating the accurate reading order and can also improve navigation (especially for longer and complex documents). Just take a minute to picture yourself using your computer with the monitor/screen turned off, and you’ll quickly understand how important logical text-flow is to anyone who utilizes a screen-reader to read your PDF. Tagging can also make a difference in how PDFs are presented on smaller devices (for example, on different tablets and mobile phones).
A properly tagged PDF is one that has:
- Heading tags (if the PDF has headings)
- Paragraph tags
- List tags for lists
- Figure tags for images
- Properly formatted Table tags
- Correctly labeled form tags if the file has form elements
PDF tags are an effective method to improve your company’s search engine optimization as well. The tags in the PDF file follow concepts similar to those found in HTML and properly used tags place websites higher in the search engine rankings.
So what decides if a PDF is considered accessible?
Not only do accessible PDFs contain a logical reading order, but also they contain alternative text, which is defined for all images in the PDF document. This way, if the image can’t be seen by the reader, the alternative text describes it. They also have specific header rows for any tables in the PDF, which contain data, and possess a specific document language. Additionally, PDFs with forms (or that are nothing but a form) should always have field descriptions defined for every field and contain the correct field tab order.
Simply put, tagged PDF files make it easier for screen readers (and other assistive technologies) to establish a logical reading order and proper navigation for the file. They also can allow for proper content reflow based on the reading device used.
What exactly is tagging?
Tagging a PDF file actually adds a layer of information to a PDF document. This information can indicate exactly what the document structure is and what it contains (such as headings, paragraphs, tables and graphics). Screen readers can access the tags and present the information to disabled readers, so an inaccessible PDF will mean that these assistive technologies may not be able to understand your file. This means that the PDF may not be interpreted correctly or will be confusing to the reader.
TIP: A PDF document that is created from a scan cannot be made accessible unless the text that it contains is converted to actual text. (This can be done by using the OCR tool within Acrobat, available on the Document menu in Acrobat).
MadeToTag is a powerful yet easy-to-use tool for providing Adobe InDesign documents with all of the structural information needed to produce accessible PDF files. It can also be used to eliminate errors which can get in the way of producing accessible PDFs. The tool takes the user step by step through the process of adding structural information to documents and exporting a tagged PDF. MadeToTag links text and paragraph styles to tags, structures the reading order by putting articles in sequence and helps the user to add descriptions to images and graphics.
MadeToTag’s keyboard shortcuts allow the user to process documents quickly. The tool’s color scheme provides a comprehensive overview of which text areas, articles, graphics and pages have already been assigned structural information and lets you know if there are any elements missing.
The Problem Finder quickly detects and fixes problems like incorrect hyphens, empty paragraphs, images that don’t have alternative text or lists without list paragraph styles. Accessible PDFs can be exported to individual pages or spreads at the push of a button.
If you need to create an accessible PDF, MadeToTag offers easier, faster and more reliable preparation of Adobe® InDesign® documents for export to tagged PDF. Click here to find out more about MadeToTag.
To summarize, transforming business and technology systems to accommodate people with disabilities will allow you to reach more customers and will improve overall customer experience. And knowing that you value their business, those users who are reliant on accessibility of PDF documents will be sure to respect your company’s dedication to ensuring that your documents are readable by everyone.